Each of us chooses how to manage underarm perspiration and odor. But is our method safe or adding to our breast cancer risk? Let's sort fact from fiction and explore healthy options.
What is Sweat?
Each person has between two and four million sweat glands in the dermis under the skin’s surface, which also contains nerve endings, hair follicles, blood capillaries, and other structures:
Nerve endings stimulate sweat gland production and are influenced by our level of physical activity, emotions and more. While most of our bodies’ sweat glands lead to pores on the skin surface, the sweat glands in the underarms lead to hairs through the follicles.
Like plasma, the colorless fluid in our blood, sweat is comprised of water and minerals, i.e. sodium and chloride. Underarm sweat also contains proteins and fatty acids. While sweat has no odor, bacteria on the underarm skin metabolize the proteins and fatty acids, producing odor.
Why We Sweat
Sweating helps keep our bodies cool and provides an auxiliary pathway for toxin elimination. As sweat evaporates from the skin surface, it removes excess heat, acting as a whole body cooling system to reduce body temperature. In addition, sweat transports not only minerals, but also heavy metals and other toxins.
While many of our bodies’ toxins are collected by the lymphatic system, processed through the liver and kidneys and eliminated by feces and urine, some studies indicate higher concentrations of heavy metals and toxins in sweat, as some toxins in the tissue and blood diffuse into sweat glands.. [i] , [ii] So while exercise may enhance the body’s ability to detoxify by facilitating sweating, urination and defecation, induced sweating through (infrared) saunas, bikram yoga, sweat lodges, etc. can help as well.
Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer
There is insufficient clinical evidence to suggest that antiperspirants or deodorants cause breast cancer. At most, they may increase risk. Some of my clients believe that antiperspirants contribute to a backflow of the lymphatics from the underarm into the breast tissue. But the lymphatic system and the sweat glands are two separate systems.
The active ingredients in most antiperspirants include aluminum salts to plug the pores that release sweat. While deodorants control oder without using aluminum salts, both deodorants and antiperspirants may contain parabens. Parabens are preservatives used in many personal care products, cosmetics and drugs. Parabens and aluminum can bio-accumulate in breast tissue and have an estrogenic effect, increasing breast cancer risk.[iii],[iv]
How we manage our underarm perspiration then, can affect our breast cancer risk. Studies indicate that in addition to heavy metals and toxic elements, sweat has been found to transport phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA). These plasticizers are endocrine disruptors that can contribute to breast cancer.[v],[vi] Common sense says that allowing our underarms to perspire and detoxify may reduce our risk of breast cancer. But how do we deal with the odor safely?
Sweat is Odorless. So Why Do We Smell?
Sweat itself has no odor, but when bacteria on the skin metabolize the proteins and fatty acids of underarm sweat, they produce an odor. Just as our guts and mouths host a microbiome, so too does our skin. A healthy underarm microbiome will create less odor than an unhealthy or altered microbiome.
Because our microbiome plays an important role in our bodies’ health defense, it makes sense to nurture it. The application of chemically-laden personal care products, i.e. soaps, antiperspirants, skin lotions, etc. can alter or devastate our microbiome. So going with less or natural can be healthier. But how can we deal with the odor safely?
Managing Odor Safely
To reduce our risk of breast cancer and to support our skin’s microbiome, we can consider an all-natural deodorant. This will allow our underarms to perspire and detox, while reducing odor and the impact on the microbiome. Many of my clients use natural deodorants without alum or chemicals and some make homemade deodorants with baking soda and essential oils, among other methods.
As for me I use the Thai Crystal salt stick which has no aluminum, alum or preservatives and lasts me 5+ years. (Be advised: if you have been using an antiperspirant and switch to a salt stick, which acts like a sponge to draw sweat out of your pores, be aware that you are altering the microbiome, opening the floodgates and facilitating detoxification. This means you may have intense odor production for days or weeks. I recommend that you work through this detoxification process until your odor is normalized. You may overwhelm the salt’s ability to kill odor-causing bacteria with only one application a day, so consider carrying your salt stick and a washcloth with you in order to rinse/wash and reapply multiple times throughout the day.)
Jamye L.D. Richardson is a Fort Collins-based certified massage therapist, neuromuscular rehab therapist, and viniyoga instructor (balancebodywork.net) who works hard and had experienced difficulty in finding an effective natural deodorant. For her, she had to try multiple deodorants until she found one that worked effectively with her microbiome to reduce odor. She now employs the $4 all-natural deodorant made by Golden Poppy Herbal Apothecary is the answer. (Because lavender oil can have an estrogenic effect for some women, I suggest using formulas without lavender oil.)
Do You Have a Safe Alternative?
Please email me with any alternatives you employ and I’ll share big ideas in my upcoming newsletter.
[i] Stephen J Genuis, Detlef Birkholz, Ilia Rodushkin, Sanjay Beesoon. Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study: monitoring and elimination of bioaccumulated toxic elements. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2011 Aug; 61(2):344-57. Epub 2010 Nov 6. PMID: 21057782.
[ii] Margaret E Sears, Kathleen J Kerr, Riina I Bray. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 184745. Epub 2012 Feb 22. PMID: 22505948.
[iii] L Barr, G Metaxas, C A J Harbach, L A Savoy, P D Darbre. Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of Applied Toxicology. Epub January 12, 2012. DOI: 10.1002/jat.1786.
[iv] F Mannello, Tonti GA, Medda V, Simone P, Darbre PD. Analysis of aluminium content and iron homeostasis in nipple aspirate fluids from healthy women and breast cancer-affected patients. J Appl Toxicol. 2011 Apr;31(3):262-9. doi: 10.1002/jat.1641. Epub 2011 Feb 21. PMID: 21337589
[v] Stephen J Genuis, Sanjay Beesoon, Detlef Birkholz, Rebecca A Lobo. Human excretion of bisphenol A: blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 185731. Epub 2011 Dec 27. PMID: 22253637.
[vi] Stephen J Genuis, Sanjay Beesoon, Rebecca A Lobo, Detlef Birkholz. Human elimination of phthalate compounds: blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. Scientific World Journal. 2012; 2012: 615068. Epub 2012 Oct 31. PMID: 23213291.
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Measure, Monitor & Adjust: Our Daily Bread